THE BLOG
10/14/2013 06:01 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

First Nighter: Westport Country Playhouse's "Room Service" on a Gold Tray

About the 1937 Room Service, now revived at the Westport Country Playhouse, I'm tempted to say things like "They don't write 'em like they used to" or "Those were the good old days." But I won't. I know better. Nevertheless, I will say that Mark Lamos's production of the John Murray-Allen Boretz comedy--originally directed and produced by George Abbott--clicks along every bit as much as it must have on its very first night. And that was a first night of a long run not commonplace during the Depression years.
The reasons for the hilarity then and now? First, of course, there's the impeccable script. Not that it was particularly ground breaking at the time. Concerning a producer and his cronies in a hotel room trying, no matter what it takes, to put a play by a newcomer on, it already owed plenty to George S Kaufman's 1925 success, The Butter and Egg Man. (And in its turn, it's a precursor of Mel Brooks's show-biz laffer, The Producers.)
Crafted with the precision of the best Swiss watchmakers, it has Gordon Miller (Ben Steinfeld), having rung up a $1200 bill at the White Way Hotel, struggling to fend off beetle-browed manager Gregory Wagner (Michael McCormick) while he searches desperately but not without buckets of guile for a backer.
Abetting him as he dodges Wagner and deputy Joe Gribble (David Beach)--who's his brother-in-law--are director Harry Binion (Jim Bracchitta) and good-hearted, fast-thinking Faker Englund (Richard Ruiz). On hand to derail Miller's progress is neophyte playwright Leo Davis (Eric Bryant). This likable rube arrives after cutting all ties with his Oswego hometown because he expects instant fame when his opus, "Godspeed," opens.
Then there's Miller's shrewd gal friend Hilda Manney (Hayley Treider), nubile hotel secretary Christine Marlowe (Zoe Winters) and, very-very important to the plot, moneyman Simon Jenkins (Frank Vlastnik), who's fronting for an initially unidentified backer. It's uptight Jenkins who makes out the gasped-after $15,000 check but then does something unhelpful to it.
It isn't necessary--it's probably even detrimental to the fun to be had--to go into the beautifully worked out complications, things like Miller and Binion preparing to skip the hotel in layers of clothes, Miller's forging a check, Miller's befuddling a bill collector, Miller's forcing Davis to feign measles and suicide, Miller's promise made and broken to Russian waiter-actor Sasha Smirnoff (Peter Von Berg) concerning a role in the troubled play.
All that need be said on the subject of the comic turmoil is: Whatever finished or unfinished shape the play was in when Boretz and Murray brought it to Abbott, the canny showman made certain that every gag landed, that the three short acts moved like gangbusters, and that--no spoiler ahead--everything worked out in the end, including the boy-gets-girl aspect.
So it's a pleasure to report that Mark Lamos--who, needless to say, didn't have to help shape the old hit--has done everything he can to make Mr. Abbott proud. To start, he realized he needed a stage full of actors who understand that timing counts, that physicality counts, that facial expressions count, that ensemble performing is a sine qua non--a troupe of players who not only understand all the above but can also put all the above into overdrive when needed.
Every one in the cast comes through, and each has his or her wonderful moment(s). For just a few examples, wait for Steinfeld's Miller to leap up and down when he thinks nothing goes his way and never will. Wait for Bracchitta as Binion to reenter with a moose head. Wait for Ruiz as Englund to go on his crying jag.
Wait for Von Berg as Sasha to tear into his "Godspeed" audition. Wait for Donald Corren as legit Dr. Glass to attempt to verify Leo's supposed tapeworm. (Yes, a tapeworm comes into it.) Because Bryant as Davis is so deft, wait for him to do any number of things juveniles are often asked to do and to suffer any number of ignominies juveniles are also often required to undergo. Then watch him eventually join the group of pranksters with simply an arch of his head and his back.
Let's hear it, too for costumer Wade Laboissonniere, who not only dressed everyone in impeccable period garb but also found voluminous white boxers for Miller and Binion to put on when they're preparing to skip out on the bill. Let's hear it for sound designer Drew Levy, who plays "Crazy Rhythm" before the action begins as a sly hint at the crazy rhythms to follow.
Let's hear it for set designer John Arnone, who found the blaring hotel wallpaper and had the four hotel room doors constructed so solidly that whenever they slammed, the noise reverberated. More cheers to Arnone, too, for putting a row of footlights right where footlights used to be and then allowing them to flicker.
About the Room Service text, I do have one question: Would the naïve Leo Davis have had the intellectual wherewithal to write the serious-sounding "Godspeed"? And now I'm giving myself a Bronx cheer for being killjoy enough to ask.
For the record: The 1937 Room Service cast included Sam Levene, Teddy Hart, Philip Loeb, Betty Field and Eddie Albert as Leo Davis. In 1953--when the last Broadway revival happened--Leo Davis was played by Jack Lemmon. Also, be it known that The Marx Brothers--who made the movie (and fiddled with the stage version in the process)--were never on stage with it. They may, however, have gone to see it and--when and if they did--may have turned the auditorium into pandemonium. Who can say?

Subscribe to the Culture Shift email.
Get your weekly dose of books, film and culture.